Ecocentric

Flip-Flop: Jon Huntsman and Newt Gingrich Go Skeptical on Climate Change

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There was a time—not that long ago—when climate change was almost a bipartisan issue. Both Barack Obama and John McCain said on the 2008 campaign trail that they were worried about the threat of climate change, and they both had relatively similar carbon cap-and-trade proposals. Seriously, this happened—I’m almost positive that I didn’t hallucinate the whole thing.

But 2012 will obviously be a very different campaign, and today to be considered a Republican Presidential candidate in good standing, you need to repudiate the informed opinion of nearly all climate scientists and pronounce yourself a skeptic. Rick Perry has done it, Mitt Romney has done it, Herman Cain has done it, Michele Bachmann has done it and I’m pretty sure Rick Santorum would do it if anyone cared enough to ask him. This has virtually nothing to do with a changing understanding of climate science and everything to do with politics and culture—one way to signal that you’re  conservative is to say that you don’t believe in climate change.

But Jon Huntsman was supposed to be different. The former Utah governor, China ambassador and every Democrat’s favorite Republican made it clear that he—unlike his opponents—believe in things like evolution and science, including the science behind global warming. And while Newt Gingrich’s opinions tend to…evolve over time, he has a history of accepting the basics of climate science, even appearing in an unforgettable Al Gore-sponsored ad on the issue with Nancy Pelosi. (I say unforgettable in the sense that Gingrich would probably like us all to forget it, even though there’s  chance of that happening.)

So Jon and Newt are on the right side of this issue? Not so fast.

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In a talk on December 6 at the Heritage Foundation—a conservative think tank—Huntsman got all squishy on the issue:

I don’t know — I’m not a scientist, nor am I a physicist. But I would defer to science in that discussion. And I would say that the scientific community owes us more in terms of a better description or explanation about what might lie beneath all of this. But there’s not enough information right now to be able to formulate policies in terms of addressing it overall.

Huntsman later said that it wasn’t so much that he didn’t believe in climate change, as much as he thought there was still scientific disagreement on the issue—a common conservative trope. While climate scientists will argue to death about the regional impacts of warming, or how fast and how devastating it will be, the basic science is settled.

(MORE: How Climate Change Is Turning Plants and Animals into Refugees)

It’s hard not to see Huntsman—who’s been getting a small boost in the polls as his opponents self-combust—tacking right on the issue as his chances of becoming the nominee become slightly less implausible. The same may be true for Gingrich, who told Glenn Beck yesterday that there was “evidence on both sides of the climate change argument.” He went on:

The point I was making was in a situation where, for example, having a larger nuclear program reduces carbon in the atmosphere, it’s a prudent thing to look at nuclear as one of the actions.

It’s a prudent thing to develop a green coal plant that takes the carbon and puts it into carbon sequestration to use it to develop oil fields more deeply and can be actually economically done. We do it right now in West Texas.

Sigh. Truth be told, I didn’t really want to write this. The argument over whether you “believe” in climate change is limiting, and I think it’s holding us back from taking more practical and serious action on the issue. In the Financial Times this weekend, Simon Kuper had a nice piece explaining why we need to move beyond this debate:

The sceptics and the apathetic will always be with us. There’ll never be full consensus on climate change. But if governments could only act when there was unanimity, no law on anything would ever be passed. The US invaded Iraq, bailed out banks and passed universal healthcare with much less consensus than exists over climate change. In short, the sceptics are not the block to action.

Rather, the block is that the believers – including virtually all governments on earth – aren’t sufficiently willing to act. We could do something. But shouting at sceptics is easier.

(MORE: Why Michele Bachmann’s $2-a-Gallon Gas Promise Is a Fantasy)

In a blog post, Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado commented and expanded on Kuper’s point:

I would go even further than Kuper to argue that the demonization of skeptics is a key strategy in elevating the importance of science in the political debate. If it wasn’t for the alleged risks that skeptics pose to our future, we’d have to instead be arguing about things like values, goals and priorities, which are messy and carry with them none of the imputed authority of science. It is in the interests of both skeptics and their opponents to argue about science, because it suggests that their debate is somehow directly relevant to policy action. It is not.

I think Pielke Jr. and Kuper are right, but we still need political leaders to at least accept the basics of climate science before we move onto the real debates over action—debates that will be informed as much by values, ethics and politics as science. I thought Huntsman at least could be that kind of leader. Perhaps not.

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Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME

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